Last updated:2023-09-18
Fear clients will be left high and dry
From April, legal aid will be cut for all benefits, employment and most immigration law cases. Substantial numbers of debt, housing, family and other types of civil law cases will also disappear from the scope of the legal aid scheme. LAG fears some clients may be left high and dry without help, and with their cases only partially completed, unless the Legal Services Commission (LSC) allows them to be transferred to alternative sources of help.
Over the last few months, Ann Lewis, policy director at the Advice Services Alliance (ASA), has been asking the LSC  to provide answers to questions about what will happen with ongoing cases after April. She believes that practitioners have already started to run down the number of cases they are taking on and fears some clients who are entitled to legal aid are already being denied a service. While the LSC confirms that there has been a decline in the number of cases being taken on, it says this does not confirm the theory that providers are withdrawing from legal aid services prior to the changes in April.
Practitioner groups, including the ASA, make the point that many firms and charities which currently undertake legal aid work are being forced to make staff redundant or transfer them to other work ahead of the April changes. They believe that this could leave clients who have ongoing cases without a representative. LAG understands no formal arrangements have been made to allow those providers which no longer have staff to cover what are known as Legal Help cases to transfer them. However, the LSC says that if a provider no longer employs a supervisor in the relevant area of law it can use an external one, as long as the provider’s contract manager agrees to this. The LSC also confirms that in the ongoing and more complex certificated cases, providers will continue to be allowed to transfer incomplete cases.
Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid at the Law Society, makes the point that solicitors do have an ongoing professional obligation to clients they have agreed to advise. He has produced some guidance but makes the point that if an organisation providing legal aid services closes down there are no means by which a client can get his/her case completed. He says the Law Society has been trying to get the LSC to address this issue from early last year.
A high number of charitable legal aid providers are likely to be forced to leave the legal aid system as they offer services in areas of law such as benefits, which is being entirely cut, or debt, which is being greatly reduced. These charities are also far less likely to have the option of cross-subsidising their work from practising in more profitable areas of law. LAG believes they should be allowed to transfer partially completed Legal Help cases to other legal aid providers, as clients should not be penalised just because their case happens to be undertaken by someone no longer able to provide legal aid. It is up to the government, which will be taking direct control of the administration of legal aid through the Legal Aid Agency from 1 April, to sort this out or risk an outcry from clients left without assistance with cases only partially completed.